Monday, June 12, 2006

Making Up The Numbers

Obtaining an accurate estimate of the number of people participating in a political demonstration has never been an easy matter, those who provide the estimates are rarely doing so in a disinterested way. In the days when I used to participate in more demonstrations than I do now, I would apply Graeme’s Coefficient to get a more or less reasonable best guess; this consisted of doubling the police estimate of attendance, halving the organisers estimate, and then splitting the difference between the two. However, there are circumstances where it seems to me that this method is just not going to work, and these circumstances now apply in the case of the right wing anti-government demonstrations that seem to have become so common in Spain in the last couple of years.

The latest of these demonstrations took place on Saturday, organised - at least formally – by the Asociación de Victimas del Terrorismo (AVT). The demonstration was called to protest against government policy on negotiations with ETA (see link here). Almost all of these demonstrations take place in Madrid which is governed at city and regional level by the opposition Partido Popular (PP). The regional government, in particular, is used by the PP as a general opposition platform and their estimates of attendance at these demonstrations tend to be extraordinarily generous, one million people seems to be the minimum allowable figure. These estimates always differ enormously with those provided by the police, who answer to the central government. So in some cases the difference between the police estimate and that of the organisers can be as high as 1.5 million. This is what happened after the previous AVT march, where the argument over attendance eclipsed the issues behind the demonstration itself.

Now there are some methods which allow more reasonable estimates to be made, based on size calculations of the area where the demonstration takes place, and a rough estimate of likely occupancy per square metre. In the case of the demonstration cited above, the organisers figure would have required something like 25 people per square metre, which counts as serious overcrowding by any standard - even if some of them could stand on each others heads. In the case of Saturday’s demonstration the difference is not so great, centre-left El País and the right wing El Mundo have both estimated attendance as being between 200-250000. The police have estimated 200000, and…wait for it…the Madrid regional government and the organisers claim one million were there!

So why does any of this matter? It becomes important because the legitimacy of those who opposing negotiation to bring an end to ETA requires being able to show popular support for their stance outside of their own ranks. The evidence of Saturday is that those marching are almost entirely PP supporters, and more interesting, that the numbers being mobilised are declining with successive demonstrations. The PP is now learning what many on the left have learnt a long time ago, the difficulty of sustaining a political campaign over a period of months and possibly years. The decision to include support for the conspiracy theories over who committed the 2004 train bombings in Madrid as part of the demonstration’s objectives may well influence the decline in numbers attending. It’s a topic that excites the PP right wing, but which is beginning to leave even some of their own supporters a bit cold. Already the PP is calling on the government to take notice of the street mobilisations and change course, but the interesting factor will be whether, internally, they are capable of recognising the evidence that public opinion does not currently seem to be on their side on this issue.

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